Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: Murder & mayhem in pre-Revolutionary Paris

Review of: The Phantom of the Rue Royale
Author: Jean-François Parot (translator: Howard Curtis)
Publisher: Gallic Books
Source: Dallas Public Library
Grade: B

Jean-François Parot’s historical mystery, The Phantom of the Rue Royal, isn’t likely to inflame any romantic notions about life in late 18th century Paris. The Paris of this third book in Parot’s series starring fictional Parisian police commissioner Nicolas Le Floch bears little resemblance to its modern version, so much of which is the result of a massive 19th century renovation.

One of my book group’s complaints about Phantom was this difficulty of mapping modern Paris onto a city where medieval firetraps of houses crowd narrow alleys, where travelling purveyors of chamber pots, with all the accompanying reeks, mingle with street food vendors. (The first book in the series includes a sketchy map of the old city, although this covers little of the territory of the third volume.)

But the wealth of historical detail, the delightful gossip (true or fictional) about historic persons, and the charming character of Le Floch himself make this a delightful and surprising romp of an historical mystery.

Le Floch’s Paris is a place where torture is a routine method of interrogation for suspected criminals, where the city’s executioner conducts autopsies, and where the Age of Reason competes with exorcism for a place in murder investigations. 

Despite Phantom’s setting during the reign of Louis XV, the monarch whose mistresses included glamour girls Pompadour and du Berry, there’s little bed-hopping. Sandwiched as he was between the reigns of his rapacious great-grandfather Louis XIV and his tragic grandson Louis XVI, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the relatively easy-going monarch whose nickname was Louis the Beloved. But Paris of the 1770’s is a perfect setting for personal tragedies, such as the one at the heart of Parot’s book.

The story opens with a public festivity turned public tragedy. A display of municipal fireworks intended to celebrated the marriage of the teenaged Dauphin (who will become Louis XVI) to the equally youthful Marie Antoinette of Austria. Le Floch’s police superior, Antoine de Sartine, has sent him to observe and report on the proceedings. (Sartine is a historical character who served as the de factor ruler of the city of Paris during much of Louis XV’s reign. His volatile temper and obsession with his collection of wigs provide some of the lighter moments in Phantom.)

Of course, the fireworks misfire, stampeding the panicked crowds, and killing dozens, if not hundreds, of bystanders. But as Le Floch views the stacked bodies of the dead in preparation for his report to Sartine, one corpse stands out from the rest. It is the body of a young woman whose neck bears the marks of death by strangulation. What better place to hide a corpse, a murderer must have thought, than in a mass grave?

Although Sartine isn’t interested in a single murder when there’s so much official negligence to rebuke, he assents to Le Floch’s request to investigate the death of the young woman, whose uncle soon turns up, identifying her as 19-year-old Élodie Galain, the unmarried, orphaned daughter of his brother, a fur trader from the territory formerly known as New France. Eager as Élodie’s relatives are to recover her body, nobody mentions a fact of her recent pregnancy uncovered by the autopsy conducted by public executioner, and Le Floch’s friend, Charles Henri Sanson. another of the historical characters who populate Parot’s story.

In one of several surprising differences between 18th century and 21st century police procedure, Le Floch manages to ensconce himself in the Galain household to investigate the young woman's murder and the presumed murder of her child. The suspects will lead him on a chase across the city, and into the highest levels of France’s secular and religious hierarchy.

Fortunately for readers who have relatively little familiarity with the history of pre-Revolutionary France, Parot (or possibly his translator, Howard Curtis) provides a list of characters and chapter notes, including references to earlier books in the Le Floch series. Personally, I would have appreciated even more extensive notes, including information about which of the characters were historical (an effort I had to make on my own).

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